Friday, August 30, 2013

The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass



Why I read it: Ongoing fascination with World War II; I'll read pretty much anything that has to do with the war.

Summary: The life stories of several American and British deserters.

My Thoughts: This book asks us one question: what would you do?

We all like to think that if faced with certain situations, we'd come out nobly and as unscathed as possible. But no matter what we think, we are not superheroes. We cannot dodge every bullet, no matter how hard we try.

America's World War II soldiers (and Australia's, and China's, and Burma's...you get the point) faced impossible odds. I remember once reading a document at the National Archives that stated that the officers of a specific outfit expected 90% casualties upon hitting a beachhead. Ninety percent! Through no fault of their own - not for lack of training, not for lack of courage or will - nine out of ten men were expected to be mowed down and killed before reaching their objective.

The soldiers profiled in this book were like many, many others. They trained, headed into battle and at some point snapped. Due to poor timing, some of them ended up with long prison sentences for simply following logic (if I stay here, I'm going to die; therefore, my best course of action for self-preservation is to leave). With bombs falling all around, indiscriminately picking off our friends and comrades one at a time or in bunches, what would we do? What would I do?

Glass weaves a wondrous narrative through the North African, Mediterranean and European theaters, one that takes us eventually into the post-war underworlds of western Europe. I think what affected me most was the storyline about the disgraced servicemen who turned to crime in the streets of Paris, London and other cities. There's possible reclamation of one's life and reputation after desertion; is there any after conviction for armed robbery? I think, too, that I'm too often embarrassed to be an American, and that, although it happened seven decades in the past, I'm embarrassed by the actions of men our country trained to carry out a noble mission who instead sought to profit from the misery of others.

Way off base, of course, but Glass certainly got me thinking. I do question one charachter in particular, deserter Sergeant Whitehead. Knowing he was a liar, as proven by Glass, I found it hard to know what was real and what was made up about his life. In the end, I wonder why Glass went with him as a subject, other than the fact that his life - true or not - makes for a good tale.

The beauty of such a book is that it reminds us that it was just a relative few who deserted, a relative few who turned to crime for survival. Most of the World War II soldiers we meet today (as few as they are becoming) still deserve our respect as it has always been given, unconditionally.

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